Congress looks to be rising above its partisan differences when it comes to the noble cause of saving the country's helium supply. The House of Representatives voted 394 to 1 last week to continue operating the Federal Helium Reserve, a government operated mine that stretches from Texas to Kansas. The Senate also looks poised to take up similar legislation when it returns to Capitol Hill next week.
Unbeknownst to many, the congressional action is an attempt to stop a major, worldwide helium shortage. The helium scarcity would intensify if the Federal Helium Reserve were to close in October, as it is scheduled to do.
It's estimated that the closure would lead to a 30 percent shortage in global supply and 40 percent shortage in domestic supply, which could have a major impact on the global economy, as helium is used for everything from birthday balloons to spacecraft to plasma screen TVs.
"Anyone who has ever had an MRI scan, used a computer microchip, or accessed the Internet has – perhaps without even knowing it – relied upon technologies made possible by helium," Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said in a released statement.
Industry advocates applaud Congressional efforts to keep the federal reserve open until the helium supply stabilizes.
"The Balloon Council supports Congress for recognizing the seriousness and urgency to maintain uninterrupted and stable access to the helium supply," says Noah Lichtman, a spokesman for the group. "A stable helium supply is critical to several important industries in the United States, including the balloon industry, which accounts for more than 100,000 jobs from balloon manufacturers, distributors and retailers."
The irony of the helium saga is that Congress is responsible for the gas's unstable supply.
In 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, which directed the reserve to be sold off and privatized by 2015, when the operation was estimated to pay back its $1.3 billion debt.
The idea was to encourage private businesses to jump into the helium production business and replace the need for the government-run reserve.
The problem is that new helium investors have not stepped in to fill the hole. The 1996 law set up a formula that did not account for rising demand and set helium prices too low. An inspector general's report of the reserve reveals that the government has been selling helium at a price that is much lower than market price, unintentionally discouraging entrepreneurs from investing.
After October, the helium reserve will still contain 10 billion cubic feet of usable gas, which lawmakers say could keep the country filled with helium for a couple more years.
Now the House and Senate are both trying to determine the best way to use the remaining helium while simultaneously encouraging entrepreneurs to get in the business. Both the Senate and the House bills, in their own different ways, would develop an auction process to sell varying amounts of helium to private companies at a higher market price.
"This bipartisan legislation will extend the life of the Federal Helium Reserve and incorporate key, free-market reforms to the program. As helium plays a key role in our economy and our everyday lives, it is important to ensure that there is not a shortage of this essential component to our high tech, healthcare, defense and research sectors," said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas.